Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

August 24: Stephen Fry (1957)

StephenFryIt was on this date, August 24, 1957, that English actor and comedian Stephen Fry was born in Hampstead, London and reared in no religion. After being expelled from two schools and spending three months in prison for credit card fraud, he entered Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he studied English Literature and became involved in the Cambridge Footlights. There he met his long-time comic collaborator Hugh Laurie. With future “House, M.D.” star Laurie, Fry was half of the comic act “Fry and Laurie,” co-starred and co-wrote “A Bit of Fry & Laurie,” and played Jeeves to Laurie’s Wooster in “Jeeves and Wooster” (based on the “Jeeves” stories of P.G. Wodehouse). Fry also distinguished himself as author (including two volumes of autobiography: Moab Is My Washpot, 1997, and The Fry Chronicles, 2010), screenwriter (including the Emmy Award-winning Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, 2006), television and radio presenter (guest on panel games such as “Just a Minute,” chairman for “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue,” host of the BBC-TV quiz show “QI”) and voice-over actor (reading all seven of the Harry Potter novels for the UK audiobook recordings and for the LittleBigPlanet series of video games).

In 2005, Stephen Fry participated in a debate on religion and blasphemy, in which Fry said, “Yes, there may be a creator. I don’t think it at all likely” and later commented, “I’ve always believed that everything that is said from authority is either the authority of one’s own heart, one’s own brain, one’s own reading, one’s own trust, but not the authority of someone who claims it because they’re speaking for God and they know the truth because it’s written in a book. That, essentially, is where I come from. In a sense, tolerance is my religion. Reason is my religion.” He went on, “I don’t think we should ever allow religion the trick of maintaining that the spiritual and the beautiful and the noble and the altruistic and the morally strong and the virtuous are in any way inventions of religion or particular or peculiar to religion.”

Although admitting that religion can have positive effects – “Sometimes belief means credulity, sometimes an expression of faith and hope which even the most sceptical atheist such as myself cannot but find inspiring” (The Spectator, 9 May 2009) – Fry has identified himself as an atheist and humanist: “I knew I couldn’t believe in God, because I was fundamentally Hellenic in my outlook” (Moab Is My Washpot, p382) – “Hellenic” meaning capricious fate. In an Intelligence Squared debate (7 November 2009), with Christopher Hitchens on his side, Fry took the position that the Catholic Church has historically done more harm than good in the world, saying,

I genuinely believe that the Catholic church is not, to put it at its mildest, a force for good in the world. … The Pope could decide that all this power, all this wealth, this hierarchy of princes and bishops and archbishops and priests and monks and nuns could be sent out in the world with money and art treasures to put the back in the countries that they once raped and violated. They could give that money away and they could concentrate on the apparent essence of their belief. And then I would stand here and say that Catholic church may well be a force for good in the world, but until that day, it is not.

In an interview on (“The Importance of Unbelief,” recorded 8 December 2009), Fry said,

You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world is beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way that you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is. ... We don’t just stop and say ‘that which I cannot understand I will call God,’ which is what mankind has done historically.

In 2010, stating, “it is essential to nail one’s colours to the mast as a humanist,” Stephen Fry was made a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. On 22 February 2011, Fry was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, joining a list of previous honorees including novelist Salman Rushdie, screenwriter Joss Whedon, and Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.

Explaining his view on religion and sexuality, and his own homosexuality, in an interview with actor and biographer Simon Callow, Fry said,

On the subject of biblical texts and examples to why you can’t do certain things with your body that you wish to, I find that absolutely absurd. I've always been extremely uncomfortable with the idea in any society that the belief is based on revealed truth, that’s to say on a text like a Bible or a Qur’an, or whatever it is. It seems to me that the greatness of our culture, for all its incredible faults, is that we have grown up on the Greek ideal of discovering the truth, discovering by looking around us, by empirical experiment, by the combination of the experience of generations of ancestors who have contributed to our sum knowledge of the way the world works, and so on. And to have that snatched away and to be told what to think by a book, however great it may be in places, this is a book that says you can sell your daughter into slavery, it’s a book that bans menstruating women from within miles of temples. The fact that it also says that for one man to lie with another man is an abomination, is no more made relevant or important than the fact that you can’t eat shellfish.

For those who object to his views, Fry has this rejoinder: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that,’ as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I’m offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what?” (“I saw hate in a graveyard” by Stephen Fry, The Guardian, 2005). It was Stephen Fry who said (Radio 4’s Bookclub), “I very rarely have faith in God; I occasionally have little spasms of it, but they go away, if I think hard enough about it.”

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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February 10: Charles Lamb

Lamb was a complete agnostic from 1801, and from 1829 he was no longer even a Unitarian.

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